The all-day drizzle ended an hour before the start of our annual moonlight ride. The temperature hovered in the mid-30s, routine for mid-November, and clouds hung low in the sky.

Clouds are disappointing, because magic happens when the moon is full and the skies are clear. Bare tree branches cast sharp shadows on the trail. Gravel roads glow like yellow ribbons in the blue-white light of the moon, and filtered moonlight creates depth and mystery in the leafless forest. If you’re extremely lucky, as we were one ride, a meteor will shoot through the night sky with a white flash that overwhelms the moon for a second or two.

The ride, near the first full moon after the leaves fall, attracts a small, ad hoc group of explorers connected through jobs, text messages and friendships. It ballooned to nearly 20 riders one year, but usually attracts a half-dozen participants who manage to negotiate the hurdles of family, cold and dark. Originally, when the focus was on the Cannon Valley Trail in southeast Minnesota, we timed it to ride without lights. No leaves meant more moonlight on the trail and better visibility. We’d ride from Cannon Falls to Welch, at the midpoint, and back without headlights or taillights, then turn them on briefly to get through town to a local saloon.

The Cannon Valley became our default location for the moonlight ride, but the trail became less of a focus over the years as we branched out to gravel roads and dabbled with short turf trails. We explored the banks of the Mississippi River one year and discovered an extended Hmong family fishing in the light of three blazing campfires. We hung out near the railroad tracks that year as Amtrak’s Empire Builder flashed by with a roar and a blaze of lights. We returned to the river another year and ate lunch on the floodlit grounds of Lock and Dam No. 3 while waiting for a barge to make its way through. We rode without lights whenever practical and turned them on when approached by vehicles.

We could have changed the month to something more comfortable, but this shoulder season had seeped into the very fiber of the ride. It took us onto the grounds of Welch Village one cold night to watch snow-making, and placed us at a picnic table in Miesville Ravine Park Reserve, where we sipped flavored rum and feasted on bean dip and guacamole. It treated us to moonlight so sharp and bright that reading was an option, and to steady rains that sent us scurrying to a warm tavern and craft beer.

Last year we broke away from the Cannon Valley to explore Minnehaha Falls and Fort Snelling. This year we traveled west to Minnetrista, where we rode 13 miles on a relatively warm, cloudy night. We roller-coasted gravel roads and skirted the Twin Cities Polo Club. We spun several miles on the Luce Line State Trail, bounced along a snowmobile trail, and swapped stories over deep-fried pickles and mushrooms at the Ox Yoke Inn. We passed on the campfire at the end of the ride and opted for a warm living room where our host treated us to homemade black raspberry liqueur.

It was a routine ride without the magic of moonlight or the unexpected bonus of a meteor shower. But a ride did happen, at a time of year and time of day when rides don’t normally happen. Friendships were reinforced, the raspberry liqueur was tasty, and the moon showed itself briefly. It was the kind of ride that brings us back year after year.


Doug Shidell is an avid bicycle tourist. He publishes the Twin Cities Bike Map.